Walter Benjamin's Grave. Michael Taussig. Chicago, IL and London, UK: The University of Chicago Press, 2006. xi + 245 pp. (Cloth US$60.00; Paper US$27.50; EBook  US$7.00–$27.50)
Article first published online: 15 MAR 2013
© 2012 by the American Anthropological Association. All rights reserved.
Volume 21, Issue 1, pages 96–97, April 2013
How to Cite
Derby, L. (2013), Walter Benjamin's Grave. Michael Taussig. Chicago, IL and London, UK: The University of Chicago Press, 2006. xi + 245 pp. (Cloth US$60.00; Paper US$27.50; EBook  US$7.00–$27.50) . Transforming Anthropology, 21: 96–97. doi: 10.1111/traa.12005_5
- Issue published online: 15 MAR 2013
- Article first published online: 15 MAR 2013
This collection touches upon themes that have long been lodestones in Michael Taussig's oeuvre. Evincing his long-time fascination with issues of magic, secrecy, fetishism, and taboo, these essays explore topics that will be familiar to readers of Taussig over the years, but there are enough important lesser-known contributions here to interest those of us who have faithfully read the Taussig canon in its entirety. The essays serve as testaments to a scholar who, through nine books and over three decades, has proved to be one of the most original and creative scholars of Latin American culture and history, one who has produced path-breaking and now classic works (e.g., Taussig 1980, 1987), and one whose tireless and fearless ethnography is always apparent, even when he undertakes more theoretical engagements with Marx, Hobbes, and his other favorite interlocutors. The essays also represent a return to the field as Taussig ventures far from Colombia, his adoptive home, to Spanish borderlands where Jewish migrants trekked during World War II and to desolate lighthouses, witnessing up close a way of life and form of labor now practically extinct. Taussig also opens ethnographic inquiry to new kinds of evidence and objects of analysis, by examining a Colombian photographer (who renders flowers out of bones), oral historical recordings, and the New York City police.
Readers will find several gems in this jewel box, including essays on the role of transgression in religion and the changing significance of the sea. One fascinating essay analyzes a series of recordings of oral history interviews conducted in the 1960s with an elderly blind man from the Colombian Cauca Valley, whose elliptical “flow and swerve” testimony confounded his Anglo-American “recorder.” True to the oral historical canon, the narrator expected to find evidence of time-held oral tradition, yet in his recollections of the liberal period and la Violencia—the 1950s Colombian Civil War—Don Tomás kept stubbornly showing off his erudition by citing written texts. He also bewildered his fact-seeking interlocutor by incessantly shifting into verse. Taussig offers a thoughtful analysis of the role of poetic form in this case, which confounded a more conventional historical vision that presumed private authorship, because the verses Don Tomás recited were inherently public. Taussig also returns to the devil-pact genre that emerged in Colombia as a protopeasant response to market relations. Yet, he adds new details on the gender of his informants, who we now discover were actually women, as well as about how capitalism had an impact on local ecology when agribusinesses felled trees and introduced pesticides that leached the soil and poisoned water sources—less apparent concerns at the time of Taussig's original fieldwork. The revelation that The Devil and Commodity Fetishism actually assembled women's stories could have enabled a more direct and fruitful engagement on gender issues between Taussig and others, including Marc Edelman and Mary Crain who, building upon Taussig's original analysis, have done excellent work on gender and devil pact narratives. But Taussig prefers to dialogue with old friends, such as Collège de Sociologie bête noire Georges Bataille, Elias Canetti, and E. B. Tylor rather than take on contemporary interlocutors. Indeed, he appears to avoid contemporary anthropological debates on principle.
The collection's title essay on Walter Benjamin carries Taussig's longstanding concern with the poetics of terror into the European theater of World War II and showcases his formidable talents as a wordsmith. Beautifully written, the essay hauntingly evokes a spectacular site yet one which has witnessed unspeakable tragedy, including how Benjamin, the brilliant young social theorist, escaped the Nazis only to take his own life. While much anthropology is written in the language of social science, Taussig is a master storyteller who takes great pleasure in illuminating paradox and contradiction—perhaps a trace of his Hegelian past via Marx. An example is the fact that, although Benjamin was a theorist of memory, there are almost no traces of his presence at the location where he escaped and died, due, in part, to the local practice of sweeping cemetery remains into a collective burial ground. Benjamin, whom Taussig describes as a “Proustian Marxist,” has been critical to Taussig's own renegade intellectual journey as he morphed from early engagé activism and Marxism into experimental ethnographic poetics, even if his prodigious body of scholarship defies such a pat characterization.
As usual, Taussig treads where others dare not go. In the past, his journeys have taken him to intrepid ethnographic sites, such as a limpieza or paramilitary sweep in a small, remote Colombian town (Taussig 2005 ). In this collection's essay, “Viscerality, Faith and Skepticism: Another Theory of Magic,” Taussig develops a processual reading of magic that seeks to explain how shamanic rites can expose their own chicanery without hampering their believers’ faith in ritual. Six years after this book's publication, Taussig, as always, provokes, probing the taboos—not of the natives this time, but rather of their observers—and pushing the limits of ethnographic inquiry in ways that never cease to startle and inspire.
- 1991 Poetics and Politics in the Ecuadorian Andes: Women's Narratives of Death and Devil Possession. American Ethnologist 18(1):67–89.
- 1994 Landlords and the Devil: Class, Ethnic and Gender Dimensions of Central American Peasant Narratives. Cultural Anthropology 9(1):58–93.
- 1980 The Devil and Commodity Fetishism in South America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. .
- 1987 Shamanism, Colonialism, and the Wild Man: A Study in Terror and Healing. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
- 2005  Law in a Lawless Land: Diary of a Limpieza in Colombia. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.